Before the cyber age, the computer age and even the space age, there was Sun Ra. Possibly the most complex figure to have emerged from black musical history, Sun Ra claimed he was born on the planet Saturn and was sent to Earth to save it through the power of jazz. From his emergence in the 1950s, till his death four decades later, his writing, polemic lectures and music foresaw space travel, cultural virtual reality and the rise of electronics; in both music and a wider cultural context. His futuristic performances were famed for their eccentricity but behind the flashing head lights, reflective clothing and cosmic sound was a man with serious ideas on race relations at the height of the American civil rights movement. Some called him a charlatan and others called him just plain crazy, but if only one thing is for certain, it’s that he was out of this world.
Sun Ra was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914 as Herman Poole Blount, but eventually denied that this was ever his name, that he ever had a family or that he was in fact from the planet Earth. He grew up surrounded by the American swing music of the 1930s Big Bands, an ensemble size which he favoured throughout his life, even when unfashionable, feeling that black Big Bands represented microcosmic utopias in which individuality was cherished within the scope of a wider cooperative community. This ideal of race collectivism and unity informed Sun Ra’s musical and social ideology throughout his entire life.
Like many African Americans during the 1930s Sun Ra boarded a train and headed to Chicago, in what became known as the Great Migration. Escaping white supremacist lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, hundreds of thousands of blacks followed the Mississippi River to the cities of the North looking for a better life. But these aspirations of assimilation and freedom were quickly wronged and the actual ghettoisation that occurred in northern cities made living standards there worse than in the South. Supremacist employment practises left blacks with the lowest paid jobs and racist housing schemes placed newly migrated families together in the most run down areas of the city. Chicago’s South Side was no exception and was the biggest of the North’s ‘black belt’ ghettos. It eventually became a hot bed of black-nationalism and violent radicalism during the late civil rights movement, but Sun Ra was a staunch pacifist and used music as his weapon of choice instead of guns in the African American struggle against the oppressive power structures of society.
Living Chicago’s South Side until 1960 and then moving to the run-down East Village in New York, Sun Ra composed and rehearsed with an ever evolving ensemble group he led named The Arkestra. By adopting the hippy ethics of communal living 15 years before such a thing existed, he rented cheap housing for his entire band in the most impoverished ghetto and rehearsed tirelessly, paying for rent and food communally with whatever money the group earned from playing. By giving many young black men the chance play in his band Sun Ra gave them a direction in life and a source of pride.
Although many of his Arkestra turned out to be among the most respected musicians in the history of jazz, Sun Ra also took in drug dependents or those with emotional problems; often without much talent. Band member James Jacson remembered, “Sun Ra sensed who would have the will power to give up everything and start a new life.” Long-time baritone saxophonist with The Arkestra, Pat Patrick went further in admitting that, “Sun Ra was another kind of being. He was educational, he helped you to grow and develop. He was a self-help organisation run on a shoestring. Black’s don’t have many people like him.”
By the 1960s every aspect of Sun Ra’s music and personality had become influenced by outer-space and what he would call ‘Afro-futurism’. A usual Sun Ra gig was a sensual feast on every level, garnering a huge cult following on the New York avant-garde scene. Sometimes as many as 30 musicians, dancers and singers were involved in the extravagant performances, which included elaborate chants about the cosmos, metallic cloaked instrumentalists playing explosive (often atonal) free jazz, and Sun Ra himself improvising the most ‘out there’ solo’s on his electronic synthesisers or reading poetry. Although the performances contained some of the most complex musical arrangements of the time, it was the look of Sun Ra and his Arkestra particularly, which puzzled those who saw him.
Many new comers saw Sun Ra’s fascination with outer-space as a flashy gimmick and often treated him like a vaudeville clown, but this was simply untrue, and criticism of this kind cost him the credibility that he deserved until he was well into later years. However, he did gain a following of loyal fans who during the 1960s were won over by his innovative compositions and intelligent social ideas. Both musicians, who appreciated his unwavering dedication to pioneering new approaches to harmony, and a burgeoning hippy community who were attracted to his psychodelic performance style, began to respect and understand Sun Ra on a deeper lever. Now after his death, musicologists and cultural historians have given Sun Ra’s ‘Astro Black Mythology’ much more gravitas and consider his obsessions with outer-space and the future to be serious metaphorical motifs, that fully understood reveals a musician with a deeply socio-political message.
In 1974 Sun Ra co-wrote and stared in a feature film entitled Space is the Place, which satirises low-budget science fiction movies from the 1950s such as Invasions of the Body Snatchers or The Day the Earth Stood Still, and blaxploitation movies from of the 1970s such as Shaft or Superfly. Set in early 1970s Oakland, California, the film begins with the return of an enlightened Sun Ra who has been travelling through the cosmos aboard his Interstellar Space Ship for some time. He offers the ghetto blacks of America a chance to go with him to a new planet: “to see what they could do with their own planet in outer space, without any white people.”
By placing the African American freedom struggle within the metaphorical realm of outer-space, Sun Ra was able to create an artistic vision of a utopian future for blacks in America during a time of oppression. The notion that the civil rights movement was a useful or successful progress was alien to Sun Ra, who believed that Christian leaders like Martin Luther King striving for integration had offered blacks unattainable dreams and that the “black man has been fed upon the food of freedom and peace and liberty” leaving him with an “addiction to freedom”.
This utopian side of Sun Ra’s ideology harks back to the separatist views of Marcus Garvey and The Universal Negro Improvement Association, back in 1914 who’s ‘Back to Africa’ campaign gained a large following during the Harlem Renaissance; the Black Nationalists of the 1960s led by the Black Panthers, or Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam. Obviously, there is a strong visual link between Sun Ra’s Interstellar Space Ship and Garvey’s Black Star Liner Ship; both offering safe passage to a utopian black future – Garvey’s, back to Africa and Sun Ra’s, into outer-space.
More often than not ambivalent and almost always ambiguous, it is virtually impossible to pin one set of coherent ideologies on to Sun Ra. On one hand he believed that integration had weakened the black community to some extent and that race unity was paramount, but on the other hand he agreed that it was planet Earth as a whole that needed to change (citing whites and blacks as equal problems). It would be easy to write Sun Ra off as a strict Black Nationalist, but this would simply be inaccurate. He was never a person who conformed to the set political agenda of others; a prefect example being his desertion from Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composers Guild – the free jazz cooperative set up in New York which attracted a new strain of politically militant black musicians – simply exclaiming, “They were doing their thing, but they were not talking about space or intergalactic things… they were talking about avant-garde and the New Thing!”
This comment suggests that Sun Ra became uncomfortable with the Black Nationalist associations that he and his music had attracted by aligning himself with the other militant avant-garde artists in the New York scene. Black Nationalist writer, LeRoi Jones once pronounced in a BBC documentary that “Sun Ra is fervently anti-white. His music reflects the ultimate militancy in jazz.” But although it is definitely true to say that Sun Ra held some separatist views, it is not fair to label him in such a precise way. When confronted with this idea Jones responded: “Some people have accused me of pulling him into Black Nationalism, but its not that simple, I don’t think anyone needed to pull Ra in to a sense of national consciousness.”
As well as outer-space, Sun Ra looked heavily towards new technologies as an influence on his music and socio-political ideas. Although outer-space was just a metaphorical theme (bearing in mind the space race had not yet started when he began to use it in his music) technologically advancement could be a reality, and in Sun Ra’s eyes was a very possible way for oppressed African Americans to make progress in society. He saw computers, which were really in their infancy at the time, and electronics as the future and believed that if blacks were to play an active role in society, it was by having an understanding of these machines. Keeping abreast of advances at all times, Sun Ra became the second person in the whole of the United States to own an electronic piano synthesiser (only to have been beaten by legendary soul artist Ray Charles).
The use of electronic sounds became a key definer of Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music. A truly pioneering approach was taken to the composition and arrangements of songs, which would be an intense experience to listen too; and even more intense to see live. The Arkestra would create heavy rhythmic textures on a range of African style percussive instruments; many of which were invented by Sun Ra himself. This would be juxtaposed with Sun Ra playing his electronic piano synthesiser, made up of incredible runs of modulated blips and beeps, deep guttural drones, and explosive free jazz solos. The overall effect was something reminiscent of the sound of an interplanetary spaceship’s command desk or the electronic messages zipping around the future of cyber space.
The influence of Sun Ra has been far reaching and the range of genres he helped stimulate only reflects the complexity of the artist. Now common place in twentieth century, the use electronically produced sounds in music back in the 1960s was groundbreaking. Sun Ra’s influence, alongside fellow avant-garde composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, has been undeniable. The bleeps of Detroit techno or Chicago house can all be traced back to Sun Ra’s experiments with the first electronic instruments. Secondly, and along a different branch of the music family tree is the hugely vital role of Sun Ra’s approach on the development of the free jazz movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Artists like John Coltrane and The Art Ensemble of Chicago all owe Sun Ra and his Arkestra a debt of gratitude, without whom, jazz may not have developed into a complex art form, rather than merely entertainment music. Lastly, the psychedelic scene that emerged with the rise of LSD in America can also tip its day-glow hat to Sun Ra. Bands like Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, shared a regular slot with The Arkestra at the cult downtown hangout Slug’s. Here audiences, often with the aid of hallucinogenic drugs, were treated to the sensual overload that only Sun Ra’s warped music and colourful stage show could provide.
Ultimately, Sun Ra was a man who dedicated his life to music and the betterment of blacks in America. His Arkestra was more than a jazz band, but rather a surrogate family of men for which Sun Ra became the father figure providing food, shelter, an education and spiritual guidance. As well as this grassroots aid, he was an artistic scholar whose metaphorical presentation of a utopian future for blacks, through the creative motif of outer-space, enabled an authentic form of aesthetic resistance to take place in a white dominated society. Sun Ra’s quest to take blacks to another planet may not have been literal, but rather a form of cultural virtual reality, acting as an artistic tool which allowed them to have their own creative zone (albeit metaphorically). For being a musical innovator and providing his very own style of social work in some of America’s worst ghettos, Sun Ra has to be remembered as one of the world’s (or in fact Saturn’s) most enduring mavericks.